The Real Bill IV
Bill Long 11/07/04
Getting to the "Heart" of the Matter
If life were all mind and if all human passion could profitably be directed to learning and written/oral expression, we could all become disciples of Friedrich Nietzsche and live out of our backpacks in an Italian rooming house. But, thankfully, we are creatures of the heart. In my judgment, the mind works best when the heart is attuned to the rhythms of the world. It is in the realm of the heart that I am both charming but wounded, capable but afraid, strong yet vulnerable. This mini-essay deals with the shadow side of the gifts described in the previous three essays, a shadow side with which I am well-acquainted.
My Charming Self
There is a part of me, an important part of me, which is outgoing, considerate, compassionate, interested in others' experiences, non-judgmental and engaged with life. I can hold an audience spellbound when I talk about subjects from the Book of Job to the death penalty. I use humor, usually self-deprecating humor, effectively to charm an audience. My ability to listen to a person, a woman especially, to understand her world and join her in her thought process about that world is genuine. I believe I am a very sensual man and a more than adequate lover.
I think, however, that the major shortcoming I now face is that I tend to be like a gardener who digs up plants each day to check the roots to see if they are still growing and, by doing so, runs the risk of damaging or destroying the plants. That is, I have a tendency to live with great energy and focus, seemingly without regard to plaudits or acclaim by others, but then, almost every day, I think about how unfair it is that I have not received the kind of affirmation from others that I feel I deserve. Because I have not stayed at the same job for more than five years, I have not deeply rooted myself in any institution or with any group of people who could possibly have helped me establish myself in the recognized "grooves" of accomplishment which our society treasures. Fearing that the "grooves" were really "ruts," I have kept my distance from institutions even as I worked for them, believing that they want to suck energy and skill and repay you for neither.
The result of this kind of thinking and experience is that while friends of mine now have endowed chairs or are in "Best Lawyers of America," I teach in an adjunct capacity and with no "portfolio" to speak of. Recognition that I feel should have come has not arrived. I cannot let that thought go, and it sometimes has a most debilitating effect on me. It triggers a thought that the reason I haven't been so lionized is because of other people's limitations, their incapacities, their inability to recognize real quality. I think like this, and then the thought washes over me. "Of course they cannot grasp me because I am just too big too be grasped by these little people."
When I engage in this kind of thinking, I then tend not simply to isolate myself but to become incapable and indesirous [I just made up that word, and you all immediately know what it means] of intimacy. I tend not to want to "give myself" to people, believing that it will simply be a waste of time and effort. I become cynical, overbearing, self-absorbed and unhelpful. Because these folk have not accorded me the proper degree of regard, I need not pay attention to what they are doing. I train my considerable critical faculties on exposing their narrowness, incapacities, methodological weaknesses, faulty memories. It is not a good way to proceed. It is, however, how I can easily live.
Drawing Me Away from the Pit
Though I no longer have panic thoughts, I entertain these kind of thoughts with regularity. There are only two instances where the thoughts disappear: (1) when I am speaking to groups of people about Job/law/Shakespeare or a number of things I am engaged in or, as has frequently happened (2) when I unexpectedly connect with a person whose personal story is so compelling that it removes every trace of self-satisfaction/arrogance that I might feel. Let me give one example of the latter.
About two weeks ago I had a very fruitful time of writing in the morning but as I was walking across campus at noon, the thought returned to me that no one would read these beautiful essays I had just written. Feeling sorry for myself and superior to the world, I went into my office. As I ventured out to pick up my mail, I ran into a colleague, the senior member of the law faculty, who had unexpectedly lost his wife of 35 years just a few weeks previously. We talked briefly and I invited him to my office to give him a copy of my new book on Job.
As we talked in my office he unburdened himself with thoughts so raw, so powerful, so insightful about the dislocation he was now experiencing that I knew I was touching the very nerve of human emotion and life. Tangled threads of sadness, fear, and aimlessness were interwoven. It was as if a massive crater had been blasted in the middle of his life. No words, no thoughts could either change life or bring comfort at that moment. I sensed deeply our share humanity, a humanity that tries so hard, struggles so mightily, longs so deeply for expertise and integration and excellence--and then feels sometimes that the rooting principle (my friend's wife) is ripped out of life. There was no room at this point for anything other than heartfelt wishes for strength, insight and wisdom from this experience.
When I engage significantly with people, I never have narcissistic thoughts. Yet, my creative work often takes me into myself and into my own deep rhythms apart from people. Learning how to make both of those work for me--creative work and connections with others--is my current desire and struggle. I want to have both the flow of insight and the hearts of friends (and a special friend if that should come). I just don't know how, at present, to mesh these two.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long